×
Back to IndieWire

‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: The Best and Worst of John Mulaney’s Third Time Hosting

After two stellar hosting stints, it would seem we know exactly what we'll get out of John Mulaney's return.

John Mulaney, "Saturday Night Live"

John Mulaney, “Saturday Night Live”

Will Heath/NBC

This week’s return episode marked John Mulaney’s third time hosting “Saturday Night Live.” After two stellar hosting stints, it seems we know exactly what we’re going to get out of that. However, unlike the first two times, this episode wasn’t as driven by Mulaney’s creativity as anyone would expect or want.

Host: John Mulaney

“I am like Louis Farrakhan: I mean a lot to a small group of people.”

That’s what Mulaney says during his opening monologue, to explain why anyone watching at home may not recognize him. It’s been the running thread throughout each of his hosting stints, as in his first time when he stressed he’s not an A-list star, yet he’s in this position. As someone who was never a performer on “SNL” — save for a few Weekend Update appearances — and simply (“simply”) a writer for the show, it seems weird. But then Mulaney gets in the hosting position, and while the role of sitcom star may not have worked out for him, he’s proven both here and as a stand-up that he knows how to perform for a live audience.

That is also on top of proving he knows how to write a funny sketch. Combine those strengths, and you have an ultimate A-grade episode of “SNL.” Somehow fail to combine those strengths — particularly on the writing end, which only hurts the performing end — and you get this episode of “SNL.”

But Mulaney’s monologue is great, as it is all him. Plus, as always, allowing a stand-up to do a stand-up set for their monologue works very well! Yes, the ‘92 Bulls are better than the Founding Fathers, and yes, it is weird that no Baby Boomer dads have friends. Relatable content!

One day, the classic films “SNL” loves to send up won’t be as evergreen as the show thinks — and that’s already the case for nearly every Kate McKinnon/Aidy Bryant classic film-based sketch — but this Saturday was not that day. Like the other classic film-based sketch of the episode, the inspiration for this “Sound of Music: Rolf and Liesl” sketch seems to have been the whole “boy-ish” look of a 37-year-old Mulaney. So that turns Nazi Rolf into a 33-year-old (or possibly 46-year-old) scrub. You know, on top of the Nazi thing.

Honestly, it’s a… strange sketch about “statutory” (the sketch’s world), which then opens up another can of worms about Maria’s (played by McKinnon) age, as she sings “I’m old enough, but it’s still kind of dicey” to close out the sketch. Strong and Mulaney make it work, as do McKinnon and Beck Bennett as they enter things. But still… strange.

“So I put in the work, became less interesting, and now they’re gonna put me on the cover of ‘SNL’ Magazine.”

“Kyle’s Transformation” is a Kyle Mooney sketch that surprisingly doesn’t have Mulaney play his dad, so it could’ve gone anywhere. And where it went was somewhere with a lot of uncanny-valley prosthetics and Justin Theroux — basically, a place where no one but Mooney could’ve expected it to go. More expected was the moment when Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” played, as that should be expected in every Mooney pre-tape sketch.

Mulaney’s role in this sketch is secondary to all the chaos, as he’s just himself: a comedy bully who shames Mooney into getting too jacked to play the dork characters he always plays, only to then take Mooney’s place in the cast. This makes a lot of sense, honestly.

Also: The funniest unacknowledged bit of the entire sketch is Bennett saying he’s playing to do either a Halloween or Christmas rap for Mulaney’s hosting appearance. Beck, it is February.

A weak sequel to “The Corporal” from this season’s Jennifer Lopez episode, “The Admiral,” hinges on the idea that John Mulaney is a twink. Honestly, the issue is more the lazy gay jokes in the sketch, especially after the lazy gay jokes (which were at least subtler) from the cold open. McKinnon and Bryant’s old-timey act is honestly strong enough on its own, but the purpose of this recurring sketch is the twist. It’s just not a great twist.

Best Sketch of the Night: “Airport Sushi”

First it was the “Les Miserables”-inspired “Diner Lobster.” Then it was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”-based (with a bit of “Cats,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Rent”) “Bodega Bathroom.” And now it’s “Airport Sushi,” in all of its “Phantom of the Opera” meets “West Side Story” meets “Annie” meets “Wicked” meets “Little Shop of Horrors” (again) meets Talking Heads glory. With this, the trilogy is (hopefully) complete, because “SNL” definitely knows how to provide too much of a good thing. This is the best way to go out with this gimmick, as the highlight of an episode that’s not exactly full of highlights.

Worst Sketch of the Night: “Uncle Meme”

How does this sketch exist in 2020? It’s one thing if the point of the sketch was about how long it takes for certain memes to make it toward a certain demographic… But that’s not it. It wouldn’t be surprising if this sketch ended up being spawned sometime in the early 2010s — due to the format of the #WhiteCollarVirgin — yet it didn’t stay there, unaired. But being outdated is still better than simply being hacky, which is why the sketch ending as it does is actually the greatest offense. “SNL” is a 40-plus-year-old comedy institution, but a sketch like this would not suggest that at all. Again, the best way to describe “Uncle Meme” (right down to the title of the sketch) is “hacky.”

Best Male Performer: David Byrne

If there’s one thing “SNL” regularly lacks, it’s liveliness; and national treasure David Byrne just so happens to always have liveliness in spades. While a John Mulaney/David Byrne episode of “SNL” should’ve been an immediate home run, honestly, it only was on Byrne’s end. To the point where it even managed to improve an already great sketch — and sketch concept — in the “Airport Sushi” sketch, by closing it all out with a “Road to Nowhere”-based musical number.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

The combination of her Liesl and her work in “Airport Sushi” solidified this. Yes, musical comedy — and sometimes just music, in general — trumped all this episode.

Final Thoughts

There’s not much to say about another endless political cold open where a bunch of celebrities get screen time instead of actual cast members… except for about the one extra in the second row, left (in the sea of journalists) who looked like a mature Mikey Day and couldn’t stop being amused by every line reading in the sketch and kept looking off to the side, possibly to see how he’s looking on camera.

“SNL” has ended up doing with Joe Biden what they should be doing with Donald Trump: constantly revolving who plays him and making that the joke. This time, it was Mulaney, who also bails from the sketch as soon as his part’s done. (He had a show to host, you see?)

For Weekend Update, Michael Che has never been better than during his mental breakdown over the possibility of dying due to Coronavirus and refusal to stop even pretending to care about the news. Unfortunately, it’s probably only a one week dynamic shift… but maybe it should just be the norm? It actually suits Che, and it just makes Weekend Update exponentially more interesting.

Chris Redd being on Weekend Update as a feature should also probably be the norm — same for Ego Nwodim — outside of Black History Month.

Of all three of John Mulaney’s stints as “SNL” host, this is easily the weakest of the bunch. Not only does it lack the very specific comedic voice of Mulaney — because there is a clear difference between a typical episode of “SNL” when the host has major input and when they don’t — it’s strangely obsessed with the past. Not just the dated nature of the “Uncle Meme” sketch but the existence of sketches like “Sound of Music: Rolf & Liesl,” “The Admiral,” and even “Jackie Robinson” It would be one thing if the point were Mulaney’s general “Classic Hollywood” feel, but that only even comes into play in “Sound of Music: Rolf and Liesl.”

It’s not a component of “The Admiral” as much as it is for the actual cast members in the sketch — and again, sorry, but John Mulaney is not a twink — or in “Jackie Robinson,” where Mulaney is simply a supporting character to Kenan Thompson’s amusing Terence Washington. At the same time, “SNL” manages to cut a sketch that’s actually relevant to present-day pop culture — with Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” — out for time.

And back to the voice of the episode, unlike his past hosting appearance, Mulaney seemingly only had a hand in writing the obvious: his monologue and the “Airport Sushi” sketch. He possibly also wrote “You Go Show”… another cut for time sketch (also another “Cecily Strong with an animal” sketch).

But at least David Byrne (and Jake Gyllenhaal) performed. That does a lot of heavy lifting here. Mulaney’s general comedic timing also does a lot of that too; it’s just that the material is noticeably weaker than it’s been his last two times as host.

Grade: B-

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox